European witch hunting. How can such lunacy have possessed humanity for two centuries? How could Europe’s educated laity, those lawyers, scholars and philosophers in the age of Erasmus cave in to such monkish phantasmagoria? The confessions of the so-called witches were worthless. But against massive systematic propaganda who could hold out? It is quite clear the witchcraft, as a systematic cult, was not discovered; it was invented by the inquisitors. The entire charade was an illusion that began its fabulous course burning thousands in its wake into epidemic proportions, particularly in Germany.
Finally, after two centuries, the lay spirit triumphed again, and belief in witchcraft, intellectually discredited, deprived of its organization and sanctions, no longer sure of the assent of rulers and judges, sank back again into its original, permanent character: a congeries of peasant superstitions.
The ultimate comfort in this squalid story of collective organized lunacy and cruelty is that the theorists of power maintain control: they create a separate caste in society- a Party, or the Elect- and arming it with a doctrine, an ideology, in which both slavery and nonsense can both be made permanent. Bertrand Russell once sadly confessed:
I am persuaded that there is no limit in the absurdities that can, by government action, come to be generally believed. Give me an adequate army, with power to provide it, with more pay and better food than falls to the lot of the average man, and I will undertake, within thirty years, to make the majority of the population believe that two and two are three, that water freezes when it gets hot and boils when it gets cold, or any other nonsense that might seem to serve the interest of the State. Of course, even when these beliefs have been generated, people would not put the kettle in the refrigerator when they wanted it to boil. That cold makes water boil would be a Sunday truth, sacred and mystical, to be professed in awed tones, but not to be acted on in daily life. What would happen would be that any verbal denial of the mystic doctrine would be made illegal, and obstinate heretics would be ‘frozen’ at the stake. ( Bertrand Russell. Unpopular Essays, 1950)
The history of the European witch hunt shows this can indeed be done with liberal, humane and learned men like Jean Bodin and Nicolas Remy hanging and burning old women with the conscientious zeal of saviors of society. It is easy to see how completely an artificial system of nonsense, once established, can take possession even of thinking, rational men; and given the more contemporary Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, we can be tempted to wonder whether perhaps today our own minds may not be equally imprisoned, though in other prisons. After all, it is not only churches that manufacture myths and win assent to them.
On the other hand, the history of the witch craze also shows the limitations of delusion. Simply, it is not possible to fool all of the people all of the time, particularly in situations where political power requires economic development.